Columbia Daily Tribune: Family Matters: John Mellencamp, Carlene Carter Celebrate Their Bond On Tour

AARIK DANIELSEN - Columbia Daily Tribune

America has a rich history of musical families. Clans whose songs have endured throughout generations, whose crests — if drawn up today — would be decorated with symbols of their legacy and innovation.

Think the Gershwin brothers. The Staples. The Jacksons.

Carlene Carter is a member of arguably America’s greatest musical family. The daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, her family tree branched out to create some of the best country and gospel music ever heard.

Sometimes a family makes music; other times, music makes the family.

Over the past three years, Carter has gained a brother — and their bond proves that music can be almost as thick as blood.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Mellencamp has become more than a friend — he is more like an adopted sibling, and his belief in her has energized this chapter of her career.

Carter will open for Mellencamp at Jesse Auditorium Friday; she called his current “Plain Spoken” tour both a celebration of their work together to date, and a preview of what’s to come.

Given her upbringing, you believe Carter when she says she rarely gets star-struck.

Growing up, she lived next door to Roy Orbison for a time. She heard “Me and Bobby McGee” long before Janis Joplin did — Kris Kristofferson played it in her living room when she was 12.

In fact, Carter remembers getting stars in her eyes just once.

“Davy Jones and the Monkees came to our house when I was 13, and I lost my mind,” she said.

So when Carter meets musicians like Mellencamp, there is an immediate ease and familiarity. A sort of shared understanding and way of perceiving their surroundings.

The two had met in passing a few times before 2014, when Mellencamp called Carter to sing on the soundtrack he was composing for “Ithaca,” a film directed by Meg Ryan.

During that studio session, Carter and Mellencamp had a genuine heart-to-heart about their lives, she said, and she found him easy to talk to. Mellencamp concluded the time by asking Carter if she was “excited about next year.”

Carter was confused by the query; Mellencamp made it plain he wanted her on his next tour. Carter was delighted by the prospect, calling Mellencamp one of her favorite songwriters.

“He is part of the soundtrack to my life, like he is to a lot of people,” she said, sharing her memories of dancing to his hits and singing them loudly while driving in her convertible decades ago.

The pair have traveled extensively together since. Carter opens the show for Mellencamp and, at some point in the set, they do a few songs together. They have become quite natural singing partners.

“I don’t have a hard time figuring out where he’s going to go; it’s like I already know where he’s going,” Carter said.

Carter and Mellencamp have more in common than musical sensibility. Both have lived and made work with a similar sense of purpose and stubbornness.

“We both have been uncompromised artists. ... I think we have that in common, almost like little rebels,” she said.

Mellencamp also is a brother figure to Mike Wanchic. The guitarist is celebrating his 40th year working with the singer-songwriter; the two have matured musically together.

When Mellencamp and Wanchic met, they quickly found musical common ground. Mellencamp grew up in Seymour, Ind., Wanchic in Lexington, Ky. As they came of age, both tuned their antennae to the same radio station out of Louisville, Ky.

“Just by that alone, we heard a musical language that was very, very similar,” Wanchic said.

To hear Wanchic tell it, the sort of friendship Mellencamp and Carter have developed is par for the course. One of Mellencamp’s truest traits is his loyalty, he said, which has led him to work with many of the same band members for decades.

Andy York, for example, is the junior player in the band’s three-guitar attack — and he has been with Mellencamp for more than 20 years.

That stability has led to a musical simpatico, Wanchic said.

He can tell when Mellencamp is going to skip the verse of a song before he does it, or know when the band’s drummer is going to make a turn. That sort of intuition is something the hottest session player couldn’t walk in and feel, he said.

At this junction in the road, Mellencamp’s band seeks to find the balance between playing expected crowd-pleasers and maintaining a level of artistic satisfaction, Wanchic said. That’s why it plays “nice theaters,” not “basketball joints,” he said.

Mellencamp has been in the public eye since his Johnny Cougar days in the 1970s, going from jukebox heartthrob to seasoned statesman.

What outsiders might not realize, however, is how consistent a figure he has been throughout. “He’s just a guy,” Wanchic said.

Mellencamp doesn’t have to keep living in Indiana, for example, but his faithfulness to his family and band “supersedes all the nonsense in this business,” Wanchic said.

Mellencamp and Carter’s closeness is spilling over into a joint record. The forthcoming “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies” is no traditional duet album, Carter said. Each artist will sing a few songs alone and a few songs together.

While Carter has her own successful resume to call on, she is thankful Mellencamp continues to see and hear something in her.

The music business is all about the newest, shiniest thing, she said. To join the tour some 40 years into her career is a vote of confidence from Mellencamp.

For Wanchic’s part, he sees why the collaboration works and said he couldn’t have dreamed up a more fitting addition to the band.

“She is a kindred spirit like none I’ve ever met,” he said of Carter.